SACRAMENTO — Rocky Delgadillo still has, at 45, that football player physique and Mr. Incredible chin. He talks tough on crime, tells stories about dodging L.A. gang bangers and puts shoulder pads on his political resume with tales of gridiron accomplishment.
Jerry Brown, still vigorous at 68, has a buzzed and balding pate that accentuates a bird-of-prey profile and eyebrows. Campaigning against Delgadillo in the Democratic primary for California attorney general, Brown spotlights crime-fighting credentials earned during his stint as Oakland mayor.
In their quest to become the state's top cop, the Democratic attorney general wannabes are performing like so many political peers hefting a full set of X and Y chromosomes, strutting their tough-guy stuff on the campaign trail.
Voters may not realize it, pundits don't dwell on it, but election day sometimes amounts to selecting the ultimate alpha male.
Accentuating the he-man has long been part of America's political DNA, from George Washington's mythic toss of a silver dollar across the Potomac to George W. Bush's jet-fighter landing and flight-suit photo opportunity on a Navy aircraft carrier in 2003.
We've seen it in a generation of presidents, in the governor's office and among candidates on the backside of the ballot.
Arnold Schwarzenegger grabbed command of the California statehouse and then governed with the testosterone-infused elan he once used when hoisting a barbell. Another Republican governor, Pete Wilson, was viewed by foes as the tough little Marine. His predecessor, George Deukmejian, was sometimes called Iron Duke.
"At some level, the choice for voters comes down to who is more macho," said Marty Kaplan, associate dean at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. "The subtext in some of these races, particularly those involving justice and public safety, becomes 'my gun is bigger than your gun.' "
So it is that Brown brushes aside his Gov. Moonbeam past to tally the felons that Oakland police have rousted on his watch. Delgadillo, Los Angeles city attorney, counters with his fight to chase gangs from their turf.
As for the death penalty, Delgadillo unabashedly supports it. Brown is opposed but has sought to deflect criticism by invoking the record of his father. During two decades as attorney general and governor, Pat Brown put aside his personal distaste for the death penalty to preside over more executions than Ronald Reagan and Deukmejian combined.
Even in a time when political campaigns are dominated by superficial 30-second TV spots, the quick sell of machismo is far from everything, analysts say. Consider the current attorney general, Bill Lockyer. He's a smart and savvy politician who has been easily elected to two terms. But he won't be making the cover of Muscle & Fitness. And he is running for state treasurer.
"It's a really, really complex calculus," said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of media and popular culture. "On one level voters want someone who seems like an action hero, a testosterone-laden guy who's going to get the job done. At the same time, Americans have a bipolar desire to root for the underdog, to not like it when someone seems arrogant and aggressive."
Voters also can sniff out a phony, analysts say, noting that despite the presence of handlers and image packaging and style coaches, authenticity still matters.
"It's almost like you're not supposed to be motivated by machismo in an era of equal rights, so it very jolly well better be real," said Barbara O'Connor, director of Cal State Sacramento's Institute for the Study of Politics and Media.
She said voters sense if someone has a commanding presence. It can be physical or a set of rugged personality traits. "That's all part of the charisma dimension," she said. "It's not verbal. It's the way you carry yourself. All those things."
Linda Colley, a Princeton University history professor, readily admits that "machismo isn't everything" but adds that in California, one has to ask an obvious question: "Would Arnold have won if he was 5 foot 4 and plump?"
Along with lining up campaign consultants and TV commercial time, politicians gird for battle with the latest diet du jour. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante has even made slimming down the centerpiece of his campaign shtick for insurance commissioner, publicly vowing to shed 50 pounds.
In addition to weight lifters, jocks and crime fighters, the campaign trail is home to another kind of manly man: the cowboy.
Bruce Newman, a DePaul University marketing professor, calls it his John Wayne theory. In the quest to lasso the Western icon of the strong, silent type of manhood considered most appealing to the electorate, he said, every president all the way back to Jimmy Carter has sidled up to the press corps duded out in cowboy boots.